Premarital Counseling Strategies
by Mitchell Bland
Forward (F): Thank you for sitting down with us today to share your insight. Why do you think it is a necessity for a local church to have a structured premarital counseling program?
Mitchell Bland (MB): If people don’t get started on the right footing, there will be problems from the beginning of the marriage. The problems may not show up until ten years later, but they will show up. Then you have to go back and correct problems that should have been established differently in the beginning. This is more difficult than if the issues had been addressed at the outset.
F: What would be an example?
MB: For instance, if a couple didn’t learn to communicate properly during the engagement period, they are going to have problems in the marriage. It’s hard to address an issue when spouses find out after ten years of marriage they have done something that upset or annoyed the other person all that time. Not only is it difficult to change the behavior, but layers of resentment have built up all because of lack of communication.
F: What topics are an absolute must for premarital counseling sessions?
MB: First you have to stress the whole idea that the couple are allies, not enemies. In other words, they will make an agreement to never do something just to “push their buttons” or to purposely upset the other. If something is upsetting them, they will agree to discuss it, but will always give the other person the benefit of the doubt. This takes a lot of trust, but ultimately that is what a relationship is built on. If you don’t trust, you can’t be vulnerable, and if you are not vulnerable, you can’t be intimate. (Intimacy in this context goes way beyond just sexual relations.) Next I have the couple set precedents, meaning what will be the fundamental plan for you as a family, e.g. we are not going to fight about money, and we won’t let our parents interfere. Those things can be tweaked later, but we establish some common ground early on. If you set that up front, it makes things better for the future. Of course communication is an essential topic and a session on the Ephesians 5:21- 25 principle of love and respect.
F: Where do most problem areas arise?
MB: Compatibility is the biggest issue. You can learn to love someone but you cannot learn to be compatible. I stress this emphatically in premarital counseling. If she can learn to love someone cannot learn to be compatible, has her medical license and her dad was an oil tycoon and then the future groom plays video games really well, no matter how much she loves him, she is going to get tired of that. The whole idea of communication is another huge issue-helping people to understand that communication happens constantly. Also, nonverbal communication is so easily misunderstood. We have our own perceptions and we view and hear things differently.
F: How do you address incompatibility issues?
MB: The first thing I do when any couple comes in is make each person brag on himself or herself. They must tell me everything they have to offer. Sometimes it will make them squirm because depending on’ personalities, it can be hard for them, but I want to see their confidence in front of each other. Then I will say you can learn to love each other, but you can’t learn to be compatible. If you have dreams, goals, and career plans but your spouse doesn’t, that’s not going to change. The other person can mature, but they are probably not going to deeply change. When people go into a relationship thinking they will change the person or not recognizing even their differences, this is a problem. When I have couples I know aren’t compatible, I can’t tell them that. I talk to them about establishing what the “deal breakers” are pre-ceremony, but I explain that once they are married, there are no deal breakers. It truly is “until death do us part:’ So when I see a couple isn’t compatible, I try to push in those areas without saying “you are not compatible” so they won’t have that hanging over the marriage if they go through with it. On the communication front, knowledge is power. Just teaching them how to properly communicate with one another and helping them know they are allies with a safe zone in which to share themselves empowers them.
F: Elaborate on how and why you don’t specifically point out problem areas?
MB: I say things without saying it. I try to hone in on problem areas in conversation and ask questions to draw things out, but I let it be their discovery. The scary thing is you may know something is a problem, but you don’t want the couple to think you’re against them or that they can’t make it. If they have their mind made up and go ahead and get married, they have to know you believe in them and that they can succeed. If you think they can’t make it, you are trying to bring those areas to the surface so they can discover that and make the decision to separate on their own.
F: Have you ever had premarital counseling sessions that resulted in the couple not getting married?
MB: No, we have been able to work through things. Now have there been couples I wish would’ve broken up? Yes. Not that I didn’t pray for them and help them, but I’ve worked with couples where marriage seemed bad timing. They were way too young and I could see things that were going to be problems or I could see someone so blinded to their faults and inflexible, absolutely unwilling to change. If they would have lived through things on their own first, then life would’ve been easier as a couple later.
F: Walk us through an instance of dealing with a potential problem area.
MB: In one instance a man said at the close of the session that he and his fiance had dated on and off and that he had wanted to make sure there wasn’t anyone better out there. I let the session close, but immediately at the next session I addressed it. I asked him what he meant by the comment. He clarified his statement, and I gave her a chance to follow up to make sure she was OK with that. I made sure they both were hearing what the other was saying and were on the same page. It would have been fine to ask him briefly in the first session what he meant in a brief closing and let him quickly clarify it. But she might wonder for the next twenty years if she was second best. I wanted to give them time to both think about it and make sure they were OK with it by making it a priority topic of discussion for them both to talk through.
F: If a church doesn’t currently do any form of premarital counseling, how could they begin?
MB: You could make it a requirement that for the pastor to marry a couple, they must meet with him for whatever sessions he chooses. A better way to set up premarital counseling would be to have pre engagement counseling. Once people are engaged, there is much more pressure to go through with the wedding, especially if dates are set. A lot of times engaged couples sit and giggle through sessions and say they do everything you ask about. Pre-engagement people seem to listen more closely. I would recommend a church set up three levels of counseling: two pre-engagement sessions, two pre-wedding sessions, and two post -ceremony sessions.
This covers basic topics before the couple gets engaged while there is still time to make changes. Also, in the post-ceremony sessions, you can address problems that have arisen you couldn’t have anticipated before. I would recommend a six-month and one-year checkup. At that point other resources can be recommended I could not have predicted they would need until after they were married. Who knew that after the wedding Mom was going to call every Saturday morning at 9:00 AM to check in? How do they address that? Now that it’s happening, we can talk about it and work through addressing it.
F: How valuable is counseling?
MB: Couples will literally spend tens of thousands of dollars and months and months of preparation for a one-day ceremony and yet spend no time or money on how to be married. If you told couples there would be a charge for the counseling, they would be horrified. Yet, it’s oflasting value after the ceremony ends. We set it up as a requirement so we don’t have to convince people of it. When something is set as a church policy, the young people know it as they grow up and it’s just part of the culture. You just have to build the culture to expect that.
F: Do you recommend any specific resources or reading materials to engaged couples?
MB: Love and Respect by Dr. Emerson Eggerichs by far trumps all. I also will recommend His Needs, Her Needs.
F: Any other recommendations for pastors looking to enhance their premarital counseling?
MB: Pastor Dan Mitchell in Columbus, Indiana, has a great premarital counseling program set up and could be consulted. They talk about very practical areas of the couple’s future to make sure they are aligned for success.
Mitchell Bland is the happy husband of Janelle and proud dad of Skyler. When not busy with his duties as the assistant pastor of The Sanctuary in Hazelwood, MO, Mitchell and his favorite ally, Janelle, enjoy ministering at marriage seminars across the country.